Young people fill the rooms, each chair, corner and nook. The clock strikes midnight. Not a sound can be heard as everyone sits entranced. Tuesday night at the library.
I walk past, viewing the spectacle from outside through floor-to-ceiling windows. In my arms is a bag of groceries, bundled like a baby. A plate of spicy chicken wings I had ordered from the cafeteria perches dangerously on my elbow. I pick at it delicately on the way back, carrying my late-night groceries to my room as I think that freshman year is exactly how I thought it would be.
Seven weeks ago, I packed up and left home, arriving in Northern California bright-eyed and bushy tailed. The bushy-tailed part was mostly figurative, but my eyes were literally dazzled by the constant sunlight.
It turns out that at some point between Gig Harbor and Santa Clara, Calif., sunshine becomes more than a passing fancy, a flirtatious heartbreaker that shows her lovely face just often enough to foster obsession. Here it possesses none of those fickle traits or deceptive promises of more to come. Here it just stays. It’s nice. I’m still not used to it.
Besides the weather, the difference between college and home can be described in three steps.
First, take everything someone would normally do in a day – wake up, eat, work, have fun, go to sleep – and shift it four hours later.
Second, take half the food someone would normally eat in a day and turn it into pizza.
Last, take the average small-town, strip it down to a school, restaurant and neighborhood, remove the adults, and you’ve got a college.
Before I got here, it was all too easy to get caught up in the pervasive hints, stories and warnings about freshman year: the independence and the homesickness, the outrageous partying and the excessive studying, the freedom of having no one to tell me to do my chores and the reality that if I don’t do my laundry, no one will.
There are many signs that this school year marks a significant change in my lifestyle. I began noticing these signs when I realized that after just a month and a half of college, I use pens more than pencils, wear ties more often than sports jerseys, push a cart at the grocery store because I am shopping for more than just movie candy, keep a to-do-list to stay on top of all my classes and meetings, and even once used a briefcase instead of a backpack. Sometimes I wish there was a TV in my room so I could just watch some cartoons.
College is fast paced, but slow moving. Seventy degrees and sunshine fades from a novelty into Groundhog’s Day, but I appreciate it nonetheless. The campus is like its own little bubble – independent, insulated, isolated. Normal guidelines such as bedtimes, healthy diets and an appropriate amount of downtime do not seem to apply.
The broken record plays out of my mouth: “Hi, I’m Aidan. What was it again? Oh, nice to meet you,” and I shake a hundred hands those first few weeks, the names and faces blurring together like the days and nights.
Grocery runs become more and more frequent as I run out of new options at the cafeteria. Every time I call a teacher “Professor” or walk by a fountain, it is difficult to remember that I am not at Hogwarts.
I cannot seem to go anywhere without being in a hurry; I run more in my dress shoes than in running shoes. When I am in class for no more than two hours at a time, every day feels like a weekend. The last call over the loudspeaker at the library is like the last call at a bar as I shuffle out into the 2 a.m. darkness toward my dormitory, wondering if this makes me a scholar or a degenerate.
What motivates you, an interviewer asks. You’re not just here to be here, obviously.
I think for a while. “I’ve been given so much,” I begin. “From my family, friends and obviously getting to be in college, now. It’s a bigger debt than I can ever pay back. How could I not try, though, if I have the opportunity to pay it back? Or to pay it forward? And I think I do.
“I guess I’ve had that chance my whole life, but that’s what is really different about college. In college that chance is all we’re here for.”
Aidan O’Neill of Gig Harbor is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. A freshman at Santa Clara University, Calif., he is a pledge for the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.